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Fishel Fellow Update from Berlin

Last week marked my five-month anniversary of being in Berlin, which means I am about halfway through with my time here as part of our Federation’s Fishel Fellowship, which started with my journey to Mumbai. I’ve learned so much about German Jewry and have finally reached a point where I feel that I have an understanding of this diverse, thriving community. 

Before I came to Berlin, I strongly associated the German Jewish community with the Holocaust, as I’m sure many American Jews also do. Many of my family and friends couldn’t understand why I would want to go to the former heart of the Nazi regime.  Even I expected constant reminders of, and preoccupation with, the Holocaust from the Jewish community here. However, while honoring and remembering the Holocaust remains important in the Berlin Jewish community, many Jews here, especially the younger generation, are trying to create a new identity—one that respects the past, but focuses more on the present and future. 

One of my tasks here is to organize a Jewish film series in Berlin for young Jews, and I was encouraged to steer clear of anything Holocaust-related. Underscoring that widespread sentiment, I recently met a young German Jewish woman who voiced her frustration with the fact that the German film industry is now dominated by Holocaust films.  She told me, “We led the world in culture and the arts before the war, and it’s frustrating that we are so preoccupied with the Holocaust that we can’t return to that now.”

Another aspect of Jewish life in Berlin involves the makeup of the Jewish community. Jewish groups here tend to be split by religious denomination, age and home country. In fact, there are three Chabad houses here:  one that is primarily Russian, one that is mostly Israeli, and one comprised mostly of students. At Bambinim, a center for Jewish families with young children where I work, almost all of the children are bi- or trilingual and have parents who come primarily from Israel or the former Soviet Union.  Thus, the classes are mostly split into Israelis, Germans, and Russian-speakers.   

Jews here find distinction of their respective denominations very important. For example, I make the rounds at different Shabbat services, trying to experience as many parts of the community as I can. While attending an Orthodox service, I was asked by members where I had spent the previous Shabbat. When I told them I was at a Reform synagogue, they looked disappointed and upset.  Even amongst Jewish social groups, people don’t like to affiliate outside of their own group.  I asked my friend if he wanted to go to an event run by a non-denominational Jewish student group, but he said he doesn’t feel comfortable with that group because “they do their meetings in the Orthodox building.” Another friend told me that her Conservative religious group was angry with her because she attended an event that was organized by an Orthodox organization.  I am working with a young unaffiliated Jewish group here to try to bring together members of the various denominations.

There are so many different Jewish organizations in Berlin, and most of them are funded by the German government. For me, it is such a foreign concept to have a Jewish community funded by the state. Government subsidies and taxes are such an important source of funding here because there isn’t really a notion of Jewish philanthropy in Germany. In fact, the whole idea of volunteering in Germany never quite caught on. After seeing such a positive response from volunteers at an event I helped organize at a refugee center, I set out to form my own Jewish volunteer group. After months of searching for a place that would agree to let us volunteer, we have a few community service events scheduled for the next several weeks, including feeding the homeless and volunteering at a Jewish senior center.

I had the pleasure of spending some time in Berlin with John Fishel, who paid me a visit a few months back. It has been an honor having him as a mentor throughout this fellowship and learning from his extensive knowledge, as well as getting to know the wonderful, fascinating person he is.  I thought that I would be the one navigating around the city, but being such a world traveler, John was the one showing me around Berlin. He took me to two museums I had never been to while we discussed issues that Jews face worldwide and talked about different experiences we have had internationally. We concluded his visit at “Gemeindetag,” a three-day government funded seminar for Jews across Germany where I helped organize and run the children’s program.

I was also fortunate to have a visit from Andrew Cushnir, Executive Vice President and Chief Program Officer of Jewish Federation Los Angeles. During his visit, we toured and met with various leaders in the Jewish community.  Perhaps the most interesting part of his visit was a meeting he organized with young Jewish leaders from a variety of organizations in Berlin. The pluralistic, diverse nature of this group reflected the greater Berlin Jewish community and their insights gave me a strong foundation in understanding the community here.  Out of the ten or so people at the table, only one was born in Germany, and the rest were mostly Russian, Israeli, or from another European country.  I didn’t realize at the time how representative that is of the greater Jewish community of Berlin. Although the group was diverse in ethnicity, its members were united in their optimistic view of the future of the German Jewry, shown through how active young people are in the Jewish community.

My parents also visited me a few months ago, and while they were here, I took my dad to the place where his mom lived before the Holocaust. Although Josty Street, where she lived with her parents and brother, doesn’t exist anymore, I was able to compare maps from the 1920s and 30s to current maps of the city, and I found the location of where her house was.  After searching the area, my dad and I discovered a cemetery where old Josty Street still runs through one part.  Standing on that cobblestone street put everything into perspective and reminded me why I’m here. The fact that my grandmother’s childhood street now runs through a cemetery is appropriate since much of her family and others who lived on that street perished in the Holocaust.  However, it does not represent the current state of German Jewish community.

I came to Berlin thinking that the Jews here needed my help, but I’ve come to see that I am the one benefitting and learning from a community that is thriving and has a bright future.

The Fishel Fellowship of Jewish Federation Los Angeles was created specifically for young adults who have a passion for the Jewish community and global service, and was named in honor of former Federation President John Fishel, a leading advocate for global Jewish social entrepreneurship who helped develop the program. Read Brianna’s blog for more of her Fishel Fellowship experiences. For more information, contact FishelFellowship@JewishLA.org

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